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While it's not necessarily something you need to do every day, exfoliation is a crucial component of your regular skincare routine. It helps remove dead skin, encourages cell turnover, prevents clogged pores, and helps even out texture.
Reactive complexion? Don't fret. According to board-certified dermatologist Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, folks with sensitive skin can still exfoliate. "It just has to be done in a different manner," she says. "I tend to recommend exfoliating with chemical means rather than mechanical (physical)."
In other words, your best bet is a product containing exfoliating acids (such as glycolic, lactic, and salicylic acid) or fruit enzymes. These earth-sourced ingredients essentially dissolve dead skin cells instead of physically scrubbing or brushing them off.
So, which formulas are gentle enough for even the most sensitive, dry, itchy, or inflamed complexions? We compiled expert recommendations and insight to bring you standout options for every skin concern and budget.
Ahead, the best exfoliators for sensitive skin.
Best Overall: Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel for Sensitive Skin
Contains AHAs and BHAs
Dr. Madfes is a big fan of lactic acid exfoliators for sensitive skin, such as Dr. Dennis Gross's Ultra Gentle Daily Peel. A pared-down version of the beloved Alpha Beta peel, it combines lactic and mandelic AHAs (alpha-hydroxy acids) with BHA (beta-hydroxy acid) salicylic acid to dissolve dead skin on the most delicate complexions.
"Gentle acids loosen the top layer of the skin and naturally shed," explains Dr. Madfes. In addition to exfoliating, these pre-soaked pads soothe with plant-based anti-inflammatory ingredients like green tea, cucumber, and witch hazel.
You'll notice visibly refined skin the first time you try it. And with regular use of this two-step system, you can count on less visible pores, reduced fine lines, and smooth-as-butter texture.
Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, mandelic acid, salicylic acid, cucumber, green tea | Size: 30 treatments | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Budget: The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA
Potentially too strong for daily use
On a budget? Your best bet is this brilliant little tincture from The Ordinary. Combining lactic acid with our favorite humectant, hyaluronic acid, it gently sloughs off dead skin cells and delivers immediate hydration.
Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, hyaluronic acid | Size: 1 ounce | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"The day after using it, my skin always feels super smooth and soft." — Joline Buscemi, Product Tester
Dr. Pierre recommends looking for chemical exfoliators with ingredients like glycolic acid, lactic acid, vitamin C, and multi-fruit acids. However, he warns to be careful with salicylic acid, a beta-hydroxy acid that's often used to treat acne, because it can be quite strong.
Best Drugstore: e.l.f. Cosmetics Gentle Peeling Exfoliant
We also love e.l.f.'s Gentle Peeling Exfoliant. It ever-so-gently dissolves dead skin with papaya and tangerine fruit enzymes, then calls on licorice extract to boost radiance without irritation.
Active Ingredients: Fruit enzymes, licorice extract | Size: 3 ounces | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Splurge: SkinCeuticals Glycolic 10 Renew Overnight
When it comes to skincare products that deliver on their promises, SkinCeuticals is often worth a splurge. This overnight treatment gently exfoliates with glycolic and phytic acid, then works to hydrate, calm, and protect sensitive skin.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, phytic acid | Size: 1.7 ounces | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best With Retinol: Absolute Joi Skin Refining Night Oil with Retinol and Vitamins C+E
Increases cell turnover
Contains organic ingredients
Retinoids can have an exfoliating effect while encouraging cell turnover. In addition to retinol, this skin-refining potion is chock full of antioxidants and plant oils like jojoba, argan, and evening primrose to replenish stressed complexions.
Active Ingredients: Retinol, vitamin C, plant oils | Size: 1 ounce | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Cleanser: SkinCeuticals Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser
Contains AHAs and BHAs
Potentially too strong for daily use
"SkinCeuticals Clarifying Exfoliating Cleanser is a product to try," says Dr. Madfes, who stands behind AHA washes for sensitive skin. In addition to lactic acid and glycolic acid, it contains pore-clearing salicylic acid to deliver a clear, smooth, even complexion.
Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, salicylic acid | Size: 5 ounces | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: No
Best In-Shower: My Konjac Sponge Korean Facial Sponge
Doesn't harbor bacteria
Some reviewers note it falls apart quickly
Looking for something to keep in the shower? You can't go wrong with a Konjac Sponge. The sponge itself is made of konjac root and bamboo charcoal, so it doesn't harbor bacteria like traditional sponges.
Active Ingredients: Activated charcoal, konjac root | Size: 1 sponge I Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Powder: Dermalogica Daily Microfoliant
Contains physical and chemical exfoliants
If you're partial to powders, you'll love Dermalogic's award-winning Daily Microfoliant. Boasting a much-deserved large following, it gently exfoliates with rice bran and salicylic acid while calming irritation with colloidal oatmeal.
Active Ingredients: Rice bran, colloidal oatmeal, salicylic acid | Size: 2.6 ounces | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Serum: Farmacy Honeymoon Glow AHA Resurfacing Night Serum
Contains AHAs and BHAs
Farmacy Honeymoon Glow contains a gentle medley of AHAs and BHAs to address uneven texture, hyperpigmentation, and clogged pores. But it doesn't stop there—hyaluronic acid⁷ and honey¹² hydrate, plump, and protect reactive skin.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid, honey, hyaluronic acid | Size: 1 ounce | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
What Our Testers Say
"A few days after I began using the serum, I noticed that my skin began to feel smoother and softer." — Olivia Hancock, Product Tester
Best Toner: Bolden Brightening Glycolic Acid Toner
Strengthens skin barrier
Potentially too strong for daily use
This is hands down, the best exfoliating toner for sensitive skin. Combining glycolic acid with niacinamide and licorice root, the ultra-hydrating formula sloughs off dead cells, dissolves sebum, and strengthens the skin barrier.
Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, niacinamide, licorice root | Size: 7.5 ounces | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best Mask: Glow Recipe Watermelon Glow Sleeping Mask
This Byrdie favorite ever-so-gently exfoliates with lactic acid, glycolic acid, and pumpkin enzymes, while watermelon extract and hyaluronic acid soothe and hydrate the skin.
Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, pumpkin enzymes, watermelon extract, hyaluronic acid | Size: 2.7 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Physical: SeSpring So Polished Sugar Scrub
Sugar dissolves rapidly
"A great manual exfoliation is the SeSpring So Polished Sugar Scrub because it's gentle and contains camellia and lotus, which hydrate, nourish, and balance, while peony soothes and protects the skin," says celebrity esthetician Joshua Ross of SkinLab.
Active Ingredients: Sugar, squalane, botanical extracts | Size: 3.38 fluid ounces | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Redness: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
To combat redness, reach for this skincare booster from Paula's Choice. The key ingredient is azelaic acid, an impressively effective yet notably mild exfoliant that tackles everything from rosacea to uneven texture to general inflammation.
Active Ingredients: Azelaic acid, salicylic acid, licorice root | Size: 1 ounce | Byrdie Clean: No | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Best for Dry Skin: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Dissolves dead skin
Results aren't as dramatic as other options
If you're dealing with dryness on top of sensitivity, these gentle exfoliating pads are your new best friend. They're pre-soaked with AHAs to dissolve dead skin, plus licorice root extract and calming ingredients like green tea and aloe vera.
Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, glycolic acid, licorice root, green tea | Size: 28 to 60 pads | Byrdie Clean: Yes | Cruelty-Free: Yes
Our number one pick is the Alpha Beta Ultra Gentle Daily Peel from Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare (view at Sephora). The two-step exfoliator calls on AHAs and BHAs to slough off dead skin and dissolve sebum while calming stressed complexions with green tea and cucumber. For something with a more agreeable price tag, we recommend The Ordinary Lactic Acid 10% + HA, which gently removes dry skin and delivers immediate hydration.
What to Look for in an Exfoliator for Sensitive Skin
If you have sensitive skin, board-certified dermatologist Dr. Brian Hibler recommends reaching for alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, for gentle chemical exfoliation. “Start with an AHA such as glycolic, lactic, or mandelic acid at a low concentration, once a week,” he says. “If your skin can tolerate it, you may increase to two or three times a week. There’s no need to rush to a high concentration. It’s more important to be consistent with use and go slowly to avoid creating excess irritation.” That said, he also recommends spot-testing any new product in an inconspicuous location and waiting a full 24 hours before applying it to the whole face.
Of all the AHAs available, he says that lactic acid is one of the most gentle; it has a softening and moisturizing effect and can be used on a more regular basis, even by those with sensitive skin. He also recommends that sensitive skin types be careful when using beta hydroxy acids, or BHAs, like salicylic acid. “Although beneficial for acne, salicylic acid may be too harsh for sensitive skin—it should be introduced at a very low concentration.”
Another acid (that doesn’t fall into the AHA or BHA category) Dr. Hibler recommends is azelaic acid, an antioxidant-rich ingredient he says helps unclog pores, brighten the skin, and help with inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea.
Exfoliation can dry out the skin, so Dr. Hibler suggests reaching for combination products that also contain hydrating ingredients like plant oils or hyaluronic acid. This, he says, will prevent the skin from drying out, leaving the complexion soft and smooth.
Free of Potential Irritants
Lastly, Dr. Hibler recommends using products that are free of common irritants like artificial fragrances, dyes, alcohol, and preservatives. While many of these ingredients won’t aggravate most skin types, it’s not worth chancing a potential bad reaction if your skin is on the sensitive side.
How do you apply an exfoliator for sensitive skin?
The proper way to apply an exfoliator depends on the type of product. There are cleansers and scrubs, which you combine with water, massage onto your skin, then rinse clean.
Then you've got pre-soaked pads and exfoliating toners, which you gently rub around clean skin. Some exfoliating products come in the form of serums that go on after cleansing, along with masks and treatments, which can often be left on overnight.
How often should you use an exfoliator if you have sensitive skin?
"In general, I would recommend somebody exfoliating once a week if they have sensitive skin," says Ross. "Over-exfoliation can lead to a compromised liquid barrier, which will exacerbate sensitive skin and could lead to redness and further irritate skin conditions such as rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema."
What products can you use along with an exfoliator for sensitive skin?
"Always follow with a moisturizer containing hyaluronic acid or glycerin," advises Dr. Madfes. Beyond that, you can use most other skincare products along with an exfoliator.
However, be mindful when using other actives, such as retinol, bakuchiol, vitamin C, tea tree oil, or caffeine, as these ingredients could irritate the brand-new skin you just exposed through exfoliation.¹ When combining skincare products with exfoliants, Dr. Madfes says, "Look for a pH balance close to normal skin, around 5."
Why Trust Byrdie?
Theresa Holland is a skincare aficionado and commerce copywriter specializing in cosmetics. She interviewed a board-certified dermatologist and a licensed esthetician for this article, compiling their product recommendations, insight into formulations, and application tips. Before landing on her final selections, she pored over user reviews, combed through ingredients lists, and referenced several peer-reviewed articles. From the above, Theresa is personally fond of Dr. Dennis Gross, Paula's Choice, Glow Recipe, First Aid Beauty, Dermalogica, and My Konjac Sponge.
Meet the Expert
- Dr. Brian Hibler is a board-certified and Harvard-fellowship trained medical and cosmetic dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group in New York City.
- Diane Madfes, MD, FAAD, is a board-certified dermatologist specializing in facial rejuvenation, non-ablative laser resurfacing, chemical peels, and general skincare. She is an attending physician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
- Joshua Ross is an esthetician, celebrity facialist, and the founder of SkinLab, a premier cosmetic beauty boutique based in Los Angeles.
According to our Diversity Pledge, 15% of products in our newly-published market roundups will feature Black-owned and/or Black-founded brands. At the time of publishing, we were not able to find enough exfoliators for sensitive skin from Black-owned and/or Black-founded businesses to meet this percentage. If you know of one we should consider, please email us at email@example.com and we will evaluate the product ASAP.